Britomartis: The Original Virgin Huntress
The Minoan mistress of hunting and sea navigation, Britomartis is considered to be one of many goddesses to have been absorbed into classical Greek mythology. Britomartis appears to have played an important role in Cretan society before the coming of the Mycenaeans. Archaeology reveals that her image had been erected in numerous places of worship both in the woodlands and by the sea. Some of these are believed to have been created by the mythical artisan Daedalus who later invented the labyrinth to hold the Cretan Minotaur.
Britomartis and Artemis
The story of Britomartis comes to us today through the Greeks - as most myths of the Minoans do. Thus, what has been passed down does not give much credence to Britomartis as a goddess in her own right. While coins and paintings from Crete reveal the way in which the Cretans viewed Britomartis, in literature what remains is the woman the Greeks melded with their youthful archer, Artemis.
Within the folklore of the Greeks, Britomartis was a mountain nymph—one of many who supposedly cared for Zeus during his infancy when his father Cronus was devouring all of his children. However, initially Britomartis was considered a much more powerful entity, and separate from her very similar counterpart Artemis.
Both Britomartis and Artemis are described as beautiful young virgins with no desire to lose their purity. The pair of them represent hunting and stand for the protection of both animals and other virgins. Furthermore, it is believed by religious scholars that Artemis' classical and Hellenistic affiliation with harbors and the moon was inspired by Britomartis' iconography
Artemis, Seignac ( leo.jeje/Flickr)
The Downgrading of Britomartis
As time went on, Britomartis was downgraded in the classical Greek world from a goddess in her own right; to a simple woodland nymph, as the daughter of Zeus and demi-goddess of harvest named Carme. She was a favorite of Artemis, who had by then become her benefactor and patroness, and was beloved by King Minos, the mythological ruler of the Minoans on the island of Crete.
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It was through this "love" that the Greeks managed to fully integrate Britomartis into their culture as a goddess. After running from Minos' pursuits for nine months, Britomartis leaped into the nets of the fishermen in the sea. She would have drowned had Artemis not saved her life and transformed the nymph into a goddess.
The Drowning of Britomartis (1547-1549), Jean Cousin the Elder ( Wikimedia Commons )
The Role of Britomartis in Greek Stories – The Good Virgin
Though there are numerous variations to Britomartis' Greek tales, the theme remains the same: Britomartis is a virginal huntress, protected by Artemis and beloved by Minos, and this love results in either a divine elevation or an escape to the island of Aegina. This escape is what is believed to have influenced Britomartis', and later Artemis', representation of as a moon deity - as the moon goddess of Aegina, Aphaea, was blended with Britomartis.
Britomartis was called the "good virgin" among the people of pre-Classical Greece. Her name directly translates as "sweet maiden", indicative of the role she played in Minoan religion. However, her image was not always considered pure. According to archaeological finds, her depiction in Minoan art and on their coins was much fiercer than her name dictates: she was still shown as a huntress, but her features have been described as "demonic features, wearing a typical local cloth, often accompanied by…double handed axes and snakes", this dark view further accentuated by the savage animals at her feet.
Britomart Redeems Faire Amoret (1833) William Etty ( Wikimedia Commons )
It is also stated by the Greek historians Diodorus Siculus (1st Century BC) and Strabo (1st Century BC-1st Century AD) that Britomartis in fact invented fishing nets to aid in her escape. The nets, called diktya in Greek, later became another title by which Britomartis was called: Δικτυννα, or Diktynna in the Latin.
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Britomartis Through the Ages
Although Britomartis was in many ways replaced and overshadowed by the Greek Artemis, her name was never completely forgotten, nor the stories that surrounded her. Her influence spanned numerous generations, preventing her from being completely absorbed by the female twin of Apollo, emphasizing the vast fluidity of the ancient Greek religion.
After the Greeks, her name and worship continued to be known to the Romans, though her cult naturally had been severely shrunk by that point in time. Britomartis would later go on to be remembered by Edmund Spenser in his famous Elizabethan tale, The Faerie Queen , thereby immortalizing her name in a more recent scope - as a strong, virginal, female knight.
Image of Britomart from Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene ( Wikimedia Commons )
By Ryan Stone
Featured Image: Britomart viewing Artegal from The Faerie Queene, (1895-1897) W. Crane ( Wikimedia Commons )
Callimachus. Hymn to Artemis. trans. A.W. Mair (William Heinemann: London, 1921.)
"Britomartis: Cretan Goddess." Encyclopedia Britannica . 2015. Accessed July 25, 2015. http://www.britannica.com/topic/Britomartis
Pausanias. Description of Greece . Trans. W.H.S. Jones (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1918.)
Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queen (Penguin Classics: London, 1979.)
Trckova-Flamee, Dr. Alena. "Britomartis." Encyclopedia Mythica . August 2005. Accessed July 25, 2015. http://www.pantheon.org/articles/b/britomartis.html